What I Learned From My First Million Words of Crap

Last week, on Friday, 26 June 2015, sometime around noon, I wrote my millionth word of finished fiction.

I did not realize it immediately. But I keep a running word counter on my computer, and when I entered the 3500 words or so that I wrote that day, the magic number popped up in the ‘Total’ cell. And made itself quite conspicuous.

When I was twenty-two, just about to get on this whole writing bandwagon, two pieces of advice from two different writers spoke to me the loudest. I filed them away in a safe Word document, written out in bold, 24-point font. Even today I open the file every couple of days and read the words out, aloud.

The first is by Wodehouse. In his book, Author! Author!, he says:

They [meaning readers] start noticing you only after you’ve published six or seven books.

The second is by Raymond Chandler (attributed to different people):

Every author has a million words of crap in them that they must spit out before they write something good.

Though they put it differently, I realized back then that they both were saying the same thing: shut up and write.

Details of the million words

A couple of points on how I counted the million words.

  • I did not count nonfiction. I’ve written a lot of nonfiction on this blog, and also a couple of books. They didn’t count.
  • I only counted finished, ready-to-publish fiction. Notes, character sketches, plot outlines and all other nice stuff is out. Only finished, fully edited, polished, ready-to-hand-in fiction.

Here are the details. Fourteen finished works of fiction so far, out of which three are unpublished, five soon-to-be-published, and six published.

  1. Loyalty Net. A science fiction novel set in 21st century Mumbai. 60,000 words. Unpublished.
  2. Eternity’s Beginning. A dystopian novel set in India. 70,000 words. Unpublished.
  3. Puzzles of Temple Towers. A collection of short mysteries set in Bangalore. 65,000 words. Unpublished.
  4. Murder in Amaravati. A mystery novel. 63,000 words. Published March 2012.
  5. Banquet on the Dead. A mystery novel. 70,000 words. Published September 2012.
  6. The Winds of Hastinapur. A mytho-fantasy novel. 90,000 words. Published September 2013.
  7. The Puppeteers of Palem. A horror novel. 75,000 words. Published November 2014.
  8. Jump, Didi! A collection of short stories. 25,000 words. Published May 2015.
  9. Nari. A novel on rape and sexual abuse. 85,000 words. To be published, July 2015.
  10. The Narrow Road to Palem. A collection of horror short stories. 35,000 words. To be published, July 2015.
  11. The Rise of Hastinapur. Book 2 of the Hastinapur series. 120,000 words. To be published September 2015.
  12. The Crows of Agra. A historical murder mystery. 90,000 words. To be published November 2015.
  13. Donoor’s Curse. A thriller novel. 90,000 words. To be published August 2015.
  14. Within the Family. A mystery novel. 65,000 words. To be published March 2016.

If you add up those numbers, it should come to slightly over a million words. Give or take a few.

7 points to note about this list

1. I published my first novel, Murder in Amaravati, in 2012, by which point I’d written about 200,000 words of finished, polished fiction.

2. Therefore, publishing has nothing to do with how good you are. The words ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are extremely personal yardsticks, whereas publishing, sales and reader feedback are mere external validations which have nothing to do with how you feel about your fiction.

3. My definition of whether I’m writing ‘good stuff’ is this:

If one of the writers I admire were to read my story, would they like it? At the very least, would they not hate it?

So if I write a horror piece, I imagine someone like Stephen King or Dean Koontz reading it. If I write a mystery, I wonder if Agatha Christie would nod along with it. If I write a funny story, would it make Wodehouse chuckle? If I write science fiction or fantasy, would it make Asimov look up from his typewriter in the heavens? And so on.

4. This has been my parameter of quality ever since I began, and it will continue to be in the future. I want to write stuff that is worthy of the people I admire. Sales are important, but they’re not great quality indicators.

5. Right about now, I’m getting to a stage where I think they will not hate what I’ve written. So my fiction has reached a stage now, in my opinion, where my idols would read it and go, ‘Meh. What else you got?’

6. I became conscious of this feeling around the 950,000-word-mark. It crept upon me slowly over the years. It’s not like I woke up one morning and felt like a star.

7. It has taken me seven years to write a million words of finished fiction. For five of those years, I was writing part time. For the last year and a half, I’ve been going at it full time.

What my million words of crap taught me

In no particular order, this is what I’ve learnt about writing and life in the last seven years. The ‘you’ that appears in some of the points is really me, talking to myself. These are personal lessons that I have drawn from my last seven years. I don’t intend any of this to be advice, though you’re free to take it that way if you wish.

Much of what I say here, I say with fiction in mind. But it applies – at a lower level – to nonfiction as well.

1. Writing is fun. It is hard to begin a story, and sometimes frustrating to get through the difficult parts. But you always feel nice after you’ve finished one.

2. Writing is a core art, and its history is as long as human speech and language. The deeper you descend into this world, the more you realize you’re only swimming on the surface. After writing a million words, I can unabashedly admit that I feel like I’ve only just begun.

3. Writing is the most abstract of the arts. Consider that an average novel builds a whole world and populates it with people, and takes you there and gives you a whole experience for a good six or seven hours. And it does it with words on a page.

4. Writing is the most transparent of the arts. Because when you drill down to it, it’s just words on a page. This means that all the knowledge that you need as a writer is available, in black and white, in the works of the authors you admire.

5. You cannot learn just by studying. You learn by first studying, then implementing what you studied in your work. See how it turns out. The difference is significant, a bit like reading a book on how to build a house, and then going ahead and actually building it.

6. A writer is built on a piece of work. A writing career is built on a body of work. There are no shortcuts to building a body of work. You just sit down and write, book after book after book.

7. The world is full of distractions. The world is full of advice. The world is full of nonsense. How much you write and how well you write will depend almost exclusively on how well you train yourself to ignore the distractions and noise.

8. You will always be a learner. Deal with it.

What next?

Now that my first million finished words of fiction are behind me, bring on the second million. Since I’m doing this full-time now, and since I’m at a better position craft-wise than when I began, I expect this to take less than seven years. As a conservative estimate, perhaps three years is a good target to shoot for.

So I expect to write my ‘two million words’ post sometime in June, 2018. Let’s see how I get on.

Image Courtesy: 1

Comments

  1. This was such an engaging post! 😀 I loved What my million words of crap taught me and I am definitely book-marking this post!

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  2. Joseph Wambaugh speaks about writing 10,000 words every day. I suppose you do something like that. Keep it up Sharath!

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  3. Amazing piece Sharath. Loved reading it. Best wishes for your next target. 🙂

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  4. The amount of writing you do is mind-boggling.
    All the best for your future man.

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  5. Sharath, once I used to wonder about how you could do this, write three novels and not try to publish them anymore, that is. But with the time I have realized the way it works, and now those three ‘unpublished’ works are something that make me appreciate you even more as a writer as well as a person. It’s interesting that you wrote about this here, as I was thinking about this recently.

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    • Hey Harshit! Thanks for the comment. I’m hardly unique in this respect. 99% of professional novelists out there have their first few stories/novels still unpublished. In fact, it is an anomaly in the business to have your first novel published, let alone for it to become a bestseller. I knew this when I started out, so it did not surprise me when my first three books got rejected. I expected it.

      I think it’s all about knowing what reality is and adjusting expectations accordingly.

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  6. Bhaskar says:

    I liked reading through your post. This is quite true of all things in life, really. In case of writers, it comes to the forefront because way too many writers fail to “shut up and write”, as you so cogently put forth. This is not the same thing as giving up – that is an entirely different problem to solve. A writer, while remaining quite content that she has not given up and is actively working on her novel, might in reality be doing everything else other than actually writing. While military discipline may not be required(you’re an artist after all), a self-imposed routine devoid of distractions and deliberations has been found to help. Every occupation in the world, every engagement, professional or otherwise, has its own set of tips and tricks. Writing, simply writing, I’ve come to believe, is the most important and most effective trick in the business of writing.

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  7. Great post, Sharath! This forced me to take a look at my stats – I’m up to about 250k words total of fiction written so far, excluding my very early works which I never bothered to track. If I include nonfiction I can push it up to 300k. So I’m kind of a long way off from my million words, but I’m okay with that. I’ve made my peace with the limited time as a constraint with a full-time job and a seven-year-old. I’m sure I can make time to write more, but for now, as long as I’m enjoying the writing, who cares, right? 🙂

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  8. Atika Srivastava says:

    Writing needs so much patience. Seven years?!? I really want to know if you never felt depressed/disappointed in these years.

    P.S.: You DO NOT write “crap”, okay? :/

    I wonder if I shall write one million words. Ever. 🙂

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    • Hi Atika,

      Yes, there have been moments of despair and disappointment. But the good times have outweighed the bad many times over. And I’m sure you will write your million too. It’s not as high a number as it seems when you say it like that. As I said in another comment on this post, a million words in seven years is under 500 words a day, which is not that high. If you can write 1000 words of fiction a day, you will write a million words in three years.

      It’s not as much a speed thing as a discipline and consistency thing. I’m sure you will do it 🙂

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  9. Aravinda M says:

    Good one Sharath.. An author’s inner most thoughts are his training grounds. He argues whats best for his readers and he tries to do justice . The real happiness is when people appreciate you or criticize you, there lies the power of the pen which has wielded your thoughts and actually made them feel/think about it. Hope you carry on with what you have accomplished and more to come..
    I remember this quote from Good reads( which in a way I remember as your quotes)
    “An Author is a person who plays with words so they can dance in the minds of others”
    ― Stanley Victor Paskavci

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  10. It’s a very interesting post. I’ve read that million word rule too. On another subject, what have been your major tools for learning writing? I’m assuming you’ve not studied writing, or even literature. It’s all on-the-job learning. Still, are there any insights on the learning curve? For eg. how different do you think are you today from your early stories, and what helped you become better? I’m asking because a million words is a long journey. (It’s LOTR*2!)

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    • Hi Raj. Welcome to the blog. First of all, I must say that a million words is a purely quantitative milestone. It may be LOTR*2 but only by numbers.

      I’ve not studied writing formally. My formal education was in engineering and mathematics. I did not study literature formally either.

      All my theoretical learning has come from two sources. One: writing books that other authors have written, and two: fiction that other authors have written. I read primarily for pleasure, but whenever I come across a piece of fiction that affects me deeply, I go back, take it apart, and study it.

      The practical part of learning has happened on the job. Even after knowing all the theoretical aspects of writing, it does take time to put them into practice with competence. That learning curve is different for different people. The million-word yardstick is, on average, quite good. You don’t really write something good until you’ve written a lot.

      The main difference I see in my writing now and my writing of seven years ago was that back then, I wrote good stories by accident. Now I write good stories on purpose. I feel like I’m more in control of what is coming out of me than I was back then. I am more aware.

      I am more confident than I used to be of writing good stories. And I’m enjoying writing a lot more because I understand the mechanics of fiction and storytelling a bit better.

      There’s still an infinite amount to learn, of course. That’s the beauty of it. It never gets boring 🙂

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    • I think that didn’t come out well. When I said you’ve not studied writing or literature, I meant a college degree in those. Like BA/MA in creative writing or literature. Didn’t mean it in a condescending way. The point I was making was to understand your process to self-learn writing.

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  11. Such a great post Sharath! Congrats on the million, I still get amazed at how much you write. Of course you do this full time now but I fail to focus even on my weekends when I get time. I wonder how you juggled writing and a full time job back then. I’m 24 already and I feel like I should be taking this seriously from now on at least.

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    • Hi Uday! 24 is not a bad time at all to begin writing seriously. As for juggling, it only takes one serious hour a day to write two or three novels a year. It’s more about discipline, really, than anything else. I’m sure you will do well. All the best 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Hi Sharath,
    Reading this was an eyeopener for most of us beginners who dream of getting published even before we finish out first 100K words. I remember reading Stephen King’s on writing where he has said, one should at least strive for a thousand words a day. It would be great if you can share the word counter with public, it would help a lot of writers out here. I have started following you religiously now.

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    • Hi Aditya! Thanks for your comment. Writing in public may be a little difficult. I may get one of those auto word counters that plug into websites. But I’m afraid that putting it up in public may make me vain and arrogant, which I want to guard against. So I think for now, I will keep my word counter private. But every time I finish a book, I will update the counter. Or better still, why don’t you email me and I will share it with you on a regular basis? That may be better because most people who visit this blog may have no interest in the counter 🙂

      And yes, as a long-term average, if you do 1000 words a day, you’re doing very, very well. My first million words of fiction took me seven years, so that’s around 350 words per day. Not an earth-shattering pace.

      I want to double it over the next three years, and hopefully get to the second million words in that time. Not sure if I will be able to do it 🙂

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  13. Very impressed and inspired by your blogpost. Specially as I have recently finished reading Nari. That is the first book I read by you, tough I knew of you from attending the Bangalore Lit Fest where if I recall correctly, you moderated the Horror Stories panel. My friend Satyarth Nayak was on it, and I enjoyed the session mainly because of your moderation( if it was you) , as the genre is one I otherwise avoid almost completely. But Then I read a review of Nari and sensing that it was a different sort of book, ordered it immediately. I was not disappointed. What a bold, intelligent and well written book. I wish publishers promoted such good writing in a better manner.

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    • Hi Kiran! Thanks for getting in touch. Yes, indeed it was I who moderated that horror writing panel at BLF last year. Glad to know someone took notice! 🙂 Maybe the trick was that I didn’t speak much.

      Thanks for your kind words on Nari as well. Stay in touch.

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  14. hey… sharath who told you ” you write crap”. you were just awesome. one thing i learned from you and ur post is ” A man Needs patience to achieve great things in life. ”

    keep writing

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  15. Hey Sharath, you’ve completed a big milestone buddy 🙂 and, based on what I’ve just read, all those you’ve written, wasn’t crap. You should have called them the Staircase to your Big Win. 🙂 Keep writing.

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  16. Amazing post Sharath. Thanks for sharing it. 🙂
    It’s utterly helpful for a naive, and maybe for for few years experienced too.
    A qualitative one, I must say.

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